Taylor has filled big shoes for Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Taylor has filled big shoes for Aspen

Jon MaletzThe Aspen Times Aspen CO, Colorado
Skiers senior Michael Taylor goes up for a dunk during Friday's opening-round playoff game against Bennett at Aspen High School. (Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times)

ASPEN Michael Taylor brought the home crowd to its feet. Aspen teammate Cory Parker rolled off a screen with 10 seconds remaining in a tie game Feb. 19 against Roaring Fork and looked to drive. When two Rams defenders collapsed on him, however, Parker scanned the floor and spotted Taylor alone under the basket.Taylor received the pass and soared for the game-winning and conference title-clinching dunk. Fans spilling out of the bleachers mobbed him. He had arrived.”It was the biggest moment of my career, the kind you dream about,” he said Wednesday. “When you can make that dream happen, it’s awesome and incredible.” “He’s one of those success stories you’re always hearing about,” Parker said. “It’s something to be admired and respected by his teammates and his friends. He’s a very mature, determined and passionate person. That’s hard to find in an 18-year-old kid.””In the fourth quarter last year, nobody wanted to take a shot. Mike Taylor kind of disappeared,” Aspen coach Steve Ketchum added. “He hasn’t disappeared since.”Taylor’s story is one replete with failure, resolve and improbability. It’s also one that nearly wasn’t written. Three years ago, long before he grew into his size 14s and could rise above the rim with apparent ease, Taylor contemplated walking away from the game he had played for as long as he could remember. Awesome and incredible aptly describe Taylor’s stunning transformation. One year ago, most fans didn’t even know his name. Now, they wear “Michael is my Homeboy” T-shirts and pack the Aspen High School gym, cameras at the ready, eagerly anticipating the 6-foot-8 senior’s next rim rattler. One year ago, he was little more than a role player. Now, Taylor is a potential Division I prospect and has teamed with Parker to create one of the state’s most intimidating front lines. Taylor is one of the players the top-seeded Skiers will lean on as they make the push for a 3A state championship. They host Bennett in the tournament’s opening round Friday at 7 p.m.

The then freshman sustained a knee injury – he was growing too fast, doctors told him – that shelved him for his entire season. Taylor said he enjoyed his time off and wondered if he would ever return to the court. “I contemplated whether I really wanted to be playing or not,” he remembered. “It’s hard to believe. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to be doing.””His parents did a lot of praying. I did a lot of praying,” Ketchum said. “People said ‘Don’t push him. He doesn’t want to work hard, he just wants to have fun.'”Ultimately, it was Taylor’s close friends who were most persuasive. They told him he had the chance to be part of something special. They told him they had a dream left to fulfill.Taylor remembered the days when he first pondered what it would be like to have his shot. He remembered sitting in the stands at the Air Force Academy as a wide-eyed youngster, watching his brother and sister – 7 and 10 years older, respectively – play in the state tournament.

He pictured himself in their high tops. Since their days in middle school, perhaps even earlier, Taylor and his close friends dreamt about what it would be like to be high school seniors and be in a position to win a state title. Ultimately, Taylor couldn’t walk away.”I realized I did miss it,” he added. “That’s where I belonged.”Taylor played junior varsity his sophomore year, then made the leap to varsity last season. Coaches noticed his potential early on and moved him into the starting lineup soon after Christmas. The then junior’s stats were hardly overwhelming; he averaged seven points and six rebounds a game. Neither he nor anyone on the roster emerged as a solid second option to all-state forward Parker, a fact that cost the Skiers in the opening round of the playoffs against Roosevelt. Parker scored 28 points, but the rest of the team had just 12 in Aspen’s upset loss. Consequently, the Skiers were in the stands, not on the court, during last March’s Great Eight at Moby Arena in Fort Collins. “The negatives get magnified in that situation,” Taylor said. “We had to sit and watch where we could’ve been if we worked that much harder.”I didn’t want to be a role player anymore, or someone who doesn’t have an impact.”

Taylor was in the weight room and in the gym, honing his shot and working on his footwork, the Monday after the tournament concluded. “He totally changed after that experience,” Ketchum said. “It’s as if he said to himself ‘I’m not going to let that happen again.'”His teammates took notice, too.”He was in here every day. His worth ethic is unbelievable,” senior Jeff Gerbaz said. “He was in here every day over the summer. Even when we were having fun scrimmaging, he was taking it serious.”This season, as Ketchum describes it, Taylor exploded. The big kid finally produced the game to match – and everyone is reaping the rewards.Taylor has become both a reliable and explosive front court player. In one season, he’s nearly doubled his scoring average – he’s scored 15 or more points six times – and is pulling down an average of six rebounds per game.His emergence has made Aspen a more balanced, formidable threat. The Skiers have won 18 straight games, finished 14-0 in conference play and beat rival Roaring Fork three times, the last coming in Saturday’s district title game.That victory helped Aspen secure one of the state’s coveted No. 1 seeds and, more important, the opportunity to host a four-team regional on the tournament’s opening weekend.”Him stepping up has meant so much to this team,” Parker said. “Without him, there’s no way we’d beat Roaring Fork three times. “He’s become such a threat. Even when he doesn’t have the ball, he’s a threat because teams are worried about him. … He’s so passionate and his love for the game and this team transfers into us. … It picks us up.”

Taylor’s emergence can undoubtedly be tied to the hype surrounding the Skiers this season. His above-the-rim antics have garnered admiration from fans and teammates alike, and he also helped spawn one of the school’s newest fashion statements, albeit unwittingly. “Michael is my Homeboy” T-shirts, an idea first conjured by Taylor’s sister, Cari, are cropping up in hallways and in bleachers with increasing regularity.”I have one,” Parker said with a smile. “Some of the people wearing them in school, I didn’t know they even knew who Mike was.”So much for anonymity. College programs, notably Division II Seattle Pacific and Division I Montana, have shown interest. Taylor recently placed third in All-League voting, Ketchum said.”Nobody knew his name last year, and now he’s the most improved player on the Western Slope on any level, maybe in the state,” Ketchum said. “He’s been a dream come true, an answer to our prayers.”Taylor said he’s proof that hard work pays off and calls his decision to return to basketball his “best ever.” But even he struggles to fully comprehend how far he’s come – from obscurity and uncertainty to emerging as one of the Slope’s top talents and emphatically ending Roaring Fork’s reign. But he won’t stop to ponder that now. Not when the dream is in reach. “A lot of kids have a dream, but to be living it is an unparalleled position,” Taylor said. “Our dream was to be seniors and be the team to win a state championship. … We’re now here. Let’s go get it.”jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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